A day in the life of an advocacy accompanier

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Accompaniment

As an Advocacy Accompanier, I probably have one of the strangest named, but most interesting jobs in CAFOD. I support CAFOD’s partners to do advocacy on issues like children’s rights, economic justice, land grabs, extra-judicial killings and climate change and in the last year I’ve worked in six different countries. But how can you be an expert on so many different places and issues, my friends often ask me? The short answer is that I’m not. And nor do I need to be. The local organisations on the ground have a wealth of knowledge gained from the work that they do every day that is different from mine. My role is to support them think through the how of advocacy and together we grapple with questions such as: How can you make sure that your land grabs report lands you in the Minister’s office and not in jail? How can make the public buzz about budgets? Why would a sceptical politician choose to attend Stakeholder Dialogue meeting at your community centre and not steak barbecue lunch at the 5* hotel corporate lobbying fest ? I ask these questions because effective advocacy always requires a strategy: it’s not enough to be passionate about a cause, to publish a lengthy report or spend your time convincing those who already agree with you.

The kind of support I give varies: workshop facilitator, mentor, critical friend, sounding board, or researcher – everyone has different needs so there is no one size fits all approach to this job! Perhaps it would be a lot less work and cheaper to run a generic advocacy course in order to disseminate a CAFOD approach to advocacy. However, I suspect that this would be ineffective, out of touch with local reality and risky in the long-run.

So, why this word accompaniment in my job title?

Why am I not an Advocacy Advisor or Officer? Well, accompaniment is a word rich in meaning. It can be understood as a complimentary musical part; a journey walked together; and a breaking of bread – three things that shape my work in surprising ways:

1. I play the fiddle at work.

Whilst I usually confine violin playing to the house, I do find it useful to think of my job as a sort of ‘second fiddle’ to our partners’ ‘music’, metaphorically speaking. I don’t choose the key, tempo or tune, but I hope to add colour, rhythm, harmony and tone. In practice this means being careful not to impose my views on the organisations I’m working with nor telling them what to do but gently probing, questioning and suggesting. It means listening carefully and responding in ways that challenge, complement and energise.

Brazilian civil society organisations MDF and Apoio have spent more than 50 years between them campaigning for the right to dignified housing in Sao Paulo. They have long struggled with high land values, apathetic authorities, housing and planning policies unresponsive to the needs of the poor and criminalisation by the police. Today they are met with a new challenge, climate change, which affects the vulnerably housed the most. The government of the city aspires to be a leader on climate change policy and is reshaping its housing and planning laws to this new reality. Until now, poor citizens who are most affect by the increasingly severe and frequent floods, landslides and droughts have been absent from these new debates. Whilst these organisations are experts in housing policy, climate change is a much newer area for them. So my role in supporting these partners is to help make sense of the vast array of policies and initiatives on climate change. By picking out what could be useful and identify where decisions are made, we can identify where we can have influence. This is something neither they nor I could do on our own: it’s a collaborative effort. Days spent wading through hundreds of pages on the Sao Paulo city council website turn out to be well spent. Analysing this information together in a workshop we discover that a high-powered Municipal Council exists which is tasked with making decisions about how the city will adapt to climate change in the future. We also discover that by law this body should have representatives from civil society. Simply being able to identify places like this where decisions are made is an important first step in having influence and eventually ensuring that climate change policies are both socially just and effective.

2. A long lunch is all in a good day’s work

Building up trust is a key skill for an Advocacy Accompanier. If I’m to be useful, it’s important that the people I work with feel able to be open with me. In many parts of the world, mealtime is when these relationships develop: it’s easier to share uncertainties chatting over a meal than it is in a formal meeting. I think of this as I dip my hand into the communal ‘sadza’ maize, the staple in many southern African countries. I’m reminded of the old French from which ‘accompaniment’ originates, ‘acompagner’, and its latin root ad+cum+panis, which literally means ‘to break bread with’. Eating together, I’m no longer an awkward NGO official, but just another face at the table and privy to conversations that otherwise I wouldn’t hear. This helps me understand the context and allows the people I’m working with time to get to know me. Back in the meeting room, our campaign strategising meeting flows so much better, now that we trust each other and my support perhaps feels like a repayment of hospitality, not an unrequested gift.

3. My job involves going a lot of interesting ‘walks’

Advocacy accompaniment often feels like a journey, in which both the accompanier and accompanied are changed whilst walking together. Sometimes this is literal: a walk through the grounds of a mission hospital, through the favela communities, or when taking a small boat to reach a distant community up river. Other times it’s more figurative, a journey of learning and experience in which CAFOD benefits as much as those we are working with. Sometimes it feels more like an uphill climb than a walk in the park: not being the person who holds the purse strings means that partners can freely ignore my suggestions, trying to find time in their’ busy schedules to meet can be a challenge, and drafting detailed plans ahead of visits rarely works in practice. But it’s also an exciting journey: arriving at a meeting expecting to chat with a couple of people and then being met by ten expectant campaigns team members eager for a strategising workshop; seeing a room come alive as participants start to debate where power lies and how they can influence it; after dinner chat and a chance meeting with a local expert giving birth to an exciting new project – these are the things that make being an Advocacy Accompanier one of the best jobs in CAFOD.

Sometimes I’m not sure who it is that’s being accompanied on this journey – me or the partner. Whilst those I’m working with may pick up some new skills and ideas from me, such as communications planning, new media and influence mapping, they have taught me other crucial ingredients are needed to make change possible. Solidarity, commitment and hope are some of these. A few examples should suffice. Solidarity is what makes one community leader I know spend more time in abandoned buildings supporting others to claim their housing rights than she does in her own comfortable new home. Commitment to advance gender equality is what drives two women I worked with continue to go to the office even after the funding that pays their salaries had dried up. And hope is what I feel when I hear civic educators encouraging young people to discuss the phrase ‘for evil to flourish all it takes is for good people to do nothing’ in circumstances when it would be much easier to stay quiet.

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